Hubert Aquin in Switzerland: ONE SEPARATIST TOO MANY
Hubert Aquin in Switzerland: ONE SEPARATIST TOO MANY
Hubert Aquin, a Québécois and a separatist, was arrested in Montreal in June 1964 charged with carrying a concealed weapon. He was eventually acquitted of the charge, but while he awaited trial in a mental hospital (he’d
been remanded for psychiatric observation) he wrote a bizarre spy novel, Prochain Episode, excerpts of which appeared in the June 4, 1966, issue of Maclean’s. The book, the story of a Quebec separatist who works for the
Cause in French Switzerland, was an instant best seller. And a year later, Aquin followed the footsteps of his fictional hero to Switzerland for an extended holiday. Here he tells what happened next.
I WAS ACQUITTED of my criminal case in December 1965, which made for a happy Christmas. I went on writing, organizing projects, dreaming up fantastic scenarios. I even tried a little acting; 1 played the role of a spy who bungles everything he attempts. Yet all this activity was somehow disenchanting. I left Montreal in May 1966, looking for a year or two of holiday. I bought an airplane ticket for New York, and then I extended it to New York-Geneva. Just a holiday . . . not a quick side step out of debt. But I've learned that people who suddenly take off — just like that — are later suspected of every possible failing or perverted motive. At first, people called my departure surprising, then hasty, then cowardly — and that leaves it open to the worst conclusions.
The truth is, I was earning a very comfortable living, despite all the uproar that surrounded my arrest and court case. The only problem was that I had no fixed employment, and had to take whatever turned up — one of the inconveniences of becoming a political figure. If there was a bank-
ruptcy involved in my departure, it was personal and emotional, not financial.
So 1 left with a few bags and a great deal of eagerness. I wandered around Lausanne, I visited Paris a few times, and I settled down in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
I’m afraid the political structure of Switzerland needs a little explanation at this point. The 800,000 inhabitants of French Switzerland are divided into five cantons: Valais, Vaud, Fribourg, Geneva and Neuchâtel. (German Switzerland has five million inhabitants.) There’s also the question of the inhabitants of the Jura Alps, who are asking for a canton of their own, or at least a special status within their present canton of Bern, for they speak French, and the German-speaking canton of Bern has shown no inclination to grant them any privileges.
And so I went to live in Nyon, about 20 miles from Geneva. Not a political refugee, not a fugitive from Interpol, just a Québécois — albeit somewhat weary of his own country for the time being. My apartment looked out on blue sky, Nyon and the glistening face of Mont Blanc. 1 duly went to police headquarters to register. as all foreigners living in Switzerland must do. They looked over my completed forms, and told me to go ahead and move in. sign the lease. My residence permit would be sent in the mail. No problem, they told me: it’s not as if you wanted to work here.
HUBERT AQUIN continued
Life was good in Switzerland ...Then the police called
It was a beautiful day, July 2. 1966, and I went straight from the police station to the rental agency. July 13 I moved in. Another beautiful day. I had nny first meal on my own balcony, overwhelmed by the scenery.
Furniture, bit by bit. Perversely enough. I'm in love with Empire style which is extremely rare, and so my furnishings were extremely sparse. And the food . . . all in all. life w'as a distinct pleasure.
But it had all the problems imposed by exile, voluntary or not. You’re cut off from your own people, from friends; you depend on the mailbox, watch for the mailman, make excuses to yourself for the letters that don't come — sunk at sea, perhaps, or sent to Japan by mistake. I waited for cheques, letters, replies, signs of friendship; there were days when I would have done anything for a postcard. The exile lives on his mail: tw'O deliveries a day meant two moments of living a day and one on Saturday, but never on Sunday.
But the sun shone, and I discovered Switzerland along with exile. I was happy, at home, at ease.
And then, early one morning, the mail brought a summons from the security police of the canton of Vaud. So I went to Lausanne, uneasy, making up crimes to fit the punishment — maybe I had robbed a bank without realizing it? You never know' what police will imagine, just for the simple pleasure of having a chat with you. And I suppose that my long study sessions with the anti-terrorist squad in Montreal have given me great distaste for anything that even hints at interrogation.
There we were: a Swiss police officer and a quiet French Canadian, face to face across the table.
Family name, given names, age, birthplace, address, profession, salary, money in bank, what are you living on? And so on. Politely — I’ve learned to be polite with the police — I answered with as little detail as possible.
Once our little discussion was under way, I knew I hadn’t been brought all the way to Lausanne just to talk about my literary ambitions and my consolidated debts.
“Is it true that in July 1964 you were arrested in Montreal and put in prison?”
I turned words around on my tongue, and swallow'ed them all.
“Are you carrying a firearm?”
“No,” 1 replied.
“You’re sure? A false declaration would be a very serious matter.”
“No. 1 have no weapon . . . unless you want to count the 1914 bayonette that hangs on my wall.” (I use it as a letter-opener, you know, when I'm not out scalping Swiss citizens!)
“So you have no weapon with you in Nyon?”
“No, I assure you . .
“Is it true that you publicly called for violence and terrorism?”
As everyone knows, my heart is as pure as the sunlight, and all you have to do to terrorize me is to pronounce the word “terrorism.” Finally, by the two-and-two-are-four method, I proved that I have always looked for good and fought evil. I was so persuasive that I brought back my own self-confidence. But he had me on one point: yes, at a certain time I had deviated from the party line of the RIN.
“Is this party, the RIN. connected with foreign organizations?”
“No, it's a Quebec party.”
The inspector, subtle as a Red Guard, tried to make me say that the RIN is subsidized by the Kremlin.
“What are the political views of the RIN?”
1 wish Pierre Bourgault. the party leader, could have heard me then. I made a grand exposition on the position of the separatists, then of the federalists, and then a rousing speech about independence. But the inspector. instead of handing over membership dues to join the party, immediately jumped to the FI.J.
1 might explain that the FI.J (Front de Liberation Jurassien) and the Rassemblement Jurassien are two movements that demand canton status for the Bernese Juras. The Swiss call these movements “extremist,” yet the Jurassian “fanatics” want to stay inside the Helvetian Confederation.
continued on page 48f
HUBERT AQUIN continued
“Who initiated the inquiry about me? The Swiss? The RCMP?”
The inspector, deadpan, questioned me on possible links between the RIN and the FLJ. I denied it vigorously, and I knew I was wasting my breath.
The Swiss police obviously believe that all separatists everywhere are linked with those Jurassians. I deduced that the police are incredibly sensitive about this word, “separatism,” so much so that they lump together the Jurassians, who are federalists, and the Quebec movements for secession. Police seem a hit paranoid: come what
may, they believe in the collusion of “extremist elements” everywhere.
Time passed. The questions gradually built up: I began to realize that these gentlemen of the Vaudoise police had a copy of my secret dossier, courtesy of the RCMP. Truth, I was learning, turns out to be stranger than my own fiction! It's enough to
make one give up writing spy stories.
My inspector asked what type of weapon I was carrying when I was arrested in Montreal. I answered, immediately:
( Silence. )
“What type of weapon?”
“An automatic, I don’t know what make . . .”
“And what happened to your automatic?”
Since he had my dossier right there, he could at least have taken the trouble to read it.
“Well, they kept it in the Palais de Justice.”
“Your choice of word.”
I rose a little from my chair — to adjust the crease in my trousers, of course — and saw the two documents in front of the inspector. One was a single-page letter, headed (I had to read it upside down), “Montreal . . .” and the date. I think it must have been a letter from the Swiss consulate in Montreal, which had been ordered to make an inquiry about me. Apparently the honorable Swiss diplomat didn't realize that one can have a judicial file and yet be acquitted of the charge!
“How do I free myself?”
Did the Swiss consulate in Montreal act on its own initiative? I’ll never know. Some people — usually well-informed sources, as they say — assured me that the initiative had come from the RCMP. But I’ll never know that, either. And who cares? I haven’t time to worry about things I can't verify. My only worry is the future: how do I free myself of this?
But back to Lausanne. I couldn’t tell the inspector, “Now, now, don’t worry. I’ll cross the border by daybreak,” because I was well and truly settled in Switzerland, responsible for a two-year lease. And it wasn’t the moment to test his sense of humor with a stream of earthy Quebec epithets.
“In two weeks,” the inspector told me as he showed me to the door, “you will know about your residence permit. I'll send my report to the federal police. They’ll make the decision.”
Optimistic or naïve or both, I really thought the federal police would take me at my word and give me my residence permit. After all. I had come to Switzerland to play with words and look at the Alps, not to mix in subversive, political, anti-Swiss activities.
But I knew that the Lausanne interrogation had shaken me. I walked cautiously, afraid the very Swiss soil would erupt under my feet. And then I conquered my horrible insecurity, and began to believe that they didn't really intend to throw me out.
September, October, shimmering in sunlight. I continued to work on my balcony, I got further along with my new novel.
Suddenly, November 19, the mail held another summons. Come to police headquarters in Nyon. I went into town. Place du Château.
In the police station, the officer smiled and told me, “It's just a simple formality. Your residency permit has been refused. Please sign here.” “What is this document?” I asked. “Just sign here. That proves you have been told.”
continued on page 48h
HUBERT AQUIN continued
“I was going to be
expelled —and had to pay to learn it”
I signed. I was about to leave when the policeman added, “That will be 15 francs 90 sous, please.”
“Fine, fine, if that’s what one must
do to learn that he is being expelled.” It’s a little Swiss custom, no doubt. And everything in Switzerland is so carefully taxed, it’s normal that one should pay to be expelled! Fifteen francs 90, that’s far less than the 30 francs a residency permit would have cost, let alone the taxes that would have followed.
That day, as I walked through the clouds of snow, I felt very close to the Spaniards and the Italians who come to Switzerland as foreign workers. They are never anything but heavy laborers, lodged in dormitories, often without their wives and families, and suspected of every jewel theft that occurs. Newspaper reports show that,
in almost every case of robbery, the victims or the police think they saw Italian or Spanish ne'er-do-wells at the scene of the crime.
And I wasn't even a foreign worker; I was a foreign unemployed, a foreigner who had just paid to be expelled. “And a stranger in Switzerland,” 1 wrote in a letter to the newspaper, Gazette de Lausanne, “is a type of plague which one tolerates as long as he is a millionaire or a laborer. I’m neither. I’m a French Canadian, a separatist ... In short, being a foreigner is only one of my failings. That’s what it takes to be politely thrown out of Switzerland. And that is precisely what has happened to me.”
The reason given by the federal police was laconic: “foreign overpopulation.” In Switzerland that phrase is a phrase of exorcism, but, above all, a handy way to hide discriminatory measures. If I had really been nothing but one body too many in the country, there would have been no need for the grilling on my political activities in Quebec and my ideological beliefs.
A small consolation: I made the headlines: “HUBERT AQUIN OVERPOPULATES SWITZERLAND.” “.A CANADIAN NOVELIST MUST LEAVE THE COUNTRY.” “RESIDENCE PERMIT REFUSED TO A CANADIAN WRITER.”
Seven weeks — then out
Since that day, I’ve met many French Swiss who have dissociated themselves from the actions of the federal police. The colleagues 1 couldn’t contact before suddenly appeared with embarrassing fervor. Their Johnny-come-lately friendship had no future: my thoughts and emotions
were already elsewhere. I was concentrating on the problems of moving. I had exactly seven weeks to leave an apartment where I had lived for several months.
The Canadian embassy in Bern certainly didn’t protest my expulsion. Anyway, it never occurred to me to ask Ottawa’s diplomats to defend the rights of a Quebec nationalist.
I sold the furniture I had chosen piece by piece. Then I took my courage in hand and gathered up all my belongings. Now I know what it is to be a Displaced Person. I was expelled from a country where I had done nothing wrong, for the simple reason that, several years earlier, I had openly fought the federal regime in Canada. I thought I knew all I wanted to know of the treatment reserved for a separatist in his own country; 1 didn’t realize I was going to learn what happens in Switzerland as well.
Bern ostracized me. and that taught me that the separatist has some importance after all. It’s recognition in reverse: you end up being an obsession in the life of the people who oppose you and push you aside. You take up separatism, quietly and calmly; then despite yourself you burst into exasperation and fervor. At first, you want good relations with the other side; in the end, they drive you to the active despair of the revolutionary.
Adapted from Le Magazine Maclean by Penny Williams.
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